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picture of Virginia Woolf in black and white
Virginia Woolf, One of the Most Important Modernists of the 20th Century

Adeline Virginia Woolf (Jan 25, 1882 – Mar 28, 1941), came from a wealthy family in South Kensington, London. She was one of the first writers to use stream of consciousness, also used by Faulkner, Kerouac, and Toni Morrison. She's most famous for the novels To the Lighthouse (1927), and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and other novels, though she also wrote essays on literary history, the politics of power, essays on artistic theory, and more. She is one of the most important Modernist writers of the 20th Century, and an inspiration for the loved (and hated) “principles and ideology of feminism to critique the language of literature” (Wikipedia).

When I hear people speak about feminism (or comment on places like Facebook, or podcasts, or on television), it amazes me how polarizing the topic remains to this day. Feminism, in the eyes of certain politically oriented people, takes on this ultra-negative connotation, which I find both unfair and misinformed. In Virginia Woolf’s time, many families believed it appropriate for only the boys of the family to be formally educated. Patriarchy, as it remains today in many countries and even here in the United States (and in particular, in certain states), dictated what was, and for Woolf, she approached the dichotomy between “how women are idealized in fiction written by men, and how patriarchal society has treated [women] in real life.” She was a pioneer in calling bullshit on male writers and the hypocrisy of what they wrote and the reality of the women in their lives. Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, writes (when speaking of women): “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.”

Now, the main point of A Room of One’s Own is that, to write, a woman needed/needs to have two things: a room of her own with a key and lock, and the ability (i.e., money) to support herself while she writes. But there was much more to Woolf’s work than the title suggests. I won’t pretend to know everything about the subject of Woolf’s writing, only to say that the complexity that the essay touches upon with regards to women’s issues at the time continues to resonate nearly a hundred years later: women’s access to education, lesbianism and being a sapphist, how society discounts the writings of women (even if the writing is as good as Shakespeare’s writing), and much more. Now, obviously things have changed dramatically not only in the U.S. but around the world. But that is not to say the limitations women faced back then do not still hold true around the world. They do. And it’s a shame.

I am often reminded of Stephen Jay Gould’s quote from The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, which states: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Obviously we can spend years analyzing the injustices and the enormous losses of the “talent [that] lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops,” but—and not to create any sort of comparison between the two—I can’t help but imagine how it must have felt (and still feels) for women unable to pursue writing (or any other endeavor) because they were born into societies that neither value their potential contributions to the arts or medicine or science or engineering or any other pursuits simply because of their sex. I am a liberal, yes, but this issue, as I see it, is a human issue, not just one of sex—although sex is precisely the qualifying trait of such discriminatory limitations imposed upon women by the patriarchal societies Woolf herself was criticizing.  

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

― Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History


My daughter, who wants to be a marine biologist, owns a set of three books called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2, and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls:100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World, featuring 300 tales of extraordinary women past and present across a wide range of fields. We read the books every few nights before bedtime. Sometimes she quizzes me: “Dad, name a famous woman you think might be in one of the books!” And I do, or I try to. Sometimes I get one; mostly I don’t know who the majority of the women are.

image of good night stories for Rebel Girls
My Daughter, Who Wants to be a Marine Biologist, has Learned a Great Deal from These Books

But my daughter pointed out to me a couple nights ago that there was only one marine biologist in either one of the books or the whole set (I can’t recall). And I could hear the disappointment in her voice. Which disappointed me (although no, it’s not about me at all, and I know that). I love that she loves the books, so don’t think I’m criticizing them—I’m not. It just got me thinking, is all. Thinking about all of the women throughout history who never got the opportunity, because of the patriarchal societies in which they were born and lived, to pursue their dreams. To be treated as the equal of men. Who knows what society would look like today if, throughout history, women were allowed the same freedoms as men? It boggles the mind.

There are many, many women pioneers in literature, as well as in every other industry known to man (see—even the phrase “known to man” is one, undoubtedly, established by “men”), whom had to struggle and fight and even get arrested solely to be treated equally to their male counterparts. And it’s a travesty.

drawing of women's rights in color
Women's Rights, Like All Minority Rights, is a Constant Uphill Battle. But We're Making Progress

Over the story of women’s rights, women were not allowed to vote, were not allowed to divorce their abusive husbands, could not hold elective office, were not given custody of their children when they separated from their spouses, were not allowed to work in most occupations, were not allowed entrance to higher education (and in many cases, any education), and even to this day, in many countries, are not allowed to dress “inappropriately,” meaning whatever the men in their countries deem “inappropriate” is the law of the land that women are required to follow.

Women like Virginia Woolf, and Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman and Malala Yousafzai, Marie Curie and Rosa Parks and Marie Stopes, Jane Austen and Amelia Earhart, these are just a fraction of the shining stars in our shared history that broke through the barriers erected before them by societies that had it wrong. By societies whose understanding of the world were (and are) divided by walls and fences, real and metaphorical, that impede progress not just for women but for all of us because of our collective hubris, a hubris that dictates that there is a difference between men and women that simply does not exist, at least when it comes to the contributions we can make as people using the brains we were born with.

black and white photo that says votes for women with women crossed out
Little by Little, Women Like Virginia Woolf Have Helped Progress for Women in the U.S. and Around the Globe

The room in Virginia Woolf’s essay is much more than just a place to write freely and unencumbered by the limitations of poverty; it is a place that exists in the collective minds of millions of people in a world where one may explore and experiment and communicate and discover what they wish, when they wish it, and how and to whom they communicate it to.


On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home (Wikipedia). She was molested as a child, lost numerous immediate family members at a young age, was a pacifist when her husband enlisted in the Home Guard during WWII, and suffered from depression and mental illness. Still, Woolf pursued her passion, which was writing, and she made a difference in the world that is still felt today. Her books and essays are taught in graduate classes, and the lessons within these works resonate, for they continue to address the issues that had Woolf pick up the pen and pad to begin with so as to highlight the ills she saw in the society around her.

When Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse, she left behind a suicide note, addressed to her husband, Leonard Woolf. “Dearest,” she wrote, “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time.” And she did not. But we can take her life and the lessons she left us in her essays and books and writings, and we can continue to build upon her legacy with our actions until, hopefully, one day, the topic of inequality dies the horrible death it should.



Cully Perlman is an author and Substantive Editor. He can be reached at






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